Slovak historians have long debated what happened in Slovakia during World War II, when the country was ruled by a Nazi puppet government. The debate has gone to the heart of the modern Slovak identity, since nationalist Slovaks have maintained that the WWII government did what it could to protect citizens against Nazi aggression, while others argue it was guilty of the deaths of thousands of the country's citizens, and thus can never be a source of national pride.
Historian Ivan Kamenec was interviewed for the Domino fórum newspaper regarding the Jewish codex, a body of anti-Jewish legislation approved in 1941 by the World War II Slovak government of Jozef Tiso.
Domino fórum (DF): What was the content of the 'Jewish codex'?
Ivan Kamenec (IK): Jews were not allowed to marry other races. They could shop only during certain hours of the day, and they weren't allowed to take part in sporting or cultural events. The most abused part of the codex was a paragraph requiring Jews to work: on the basis of this, deportations began. From the pan-European perspective, it was one of the cruellest anti-semitic laws in modern history.
DF: The popular explanation of the 'Jewish solution' in Slovakia at the time was German pressure. To what extent did it flow from natural anti-semitism in this country?
IK: Anti-semitism was nothing new in Slovak politics, and the government at the time neither created it nor held a monopoly on it. But it was made an official government policy, which had never happened before.
DF: Anti-Jewish pogroms were organised mainly by the Hlinka Guard and the People's Party. What social groups did these people come from? What's the difference between them and modern skinheads?
IK: The difference is that while skinheads today are on the fringes of society, at that time Jewish pogroms were official government policy
DF: How did mainstream Slovak society react to the anti-Jewish measures?
IK: In the beginning it was seen as a correction of certain social imbalances. It's clear that most Slovaks profited from this process. The second aspect, which was stressed by the Catholic Church, was that Jews had been responsible for the death of Christ. But after the deportations began, the attitude of many people towards this question began to change.
DF: Some historians claim that Tiso was not responsible for the Jewish codex because he didn't sign it.
IK: As president, Tiso according to the constitution had neither the right nor the duty to sign government edicts. But until 1939, while he was prime minister, he signed all anti-Jewish legislation.
DF: While he didn't sign the codex, he had the power to exempt people from its rules. Before deportations began, almost 90,000 Jews lived in Slovakia. How many of them received exemptions?
IK: According to my research, the president gave out 1,100 exemptions, which affected a total of about 5,000 people. Claims that he issued between 30,000 and 40,000 exemptions are absurd.
DF: On what basis were they issued?
IK: Most people who got them had work permission papers and convertible currency. You could also buy an exemption, but not everyone had enough money. The majority of exemptions were given out in 1943, when the first phase of deportations was already over, and over 58,000 Jews had been sent to Auschwitz. The question of course arises as to from whom the president was protecting these people, when Slovakia was not an occupied country.
DF: The codex was in fact not the 'final solution', and deportations didn't begin until March 25, 1942. Could the government have known at that time what was happening to the deportees?
IK: The then-head of propaganda in Slovakia wrote in his memoirs, "We heard what was happening to the Jews, but we couldn't and didn't want to believe it." As far as Tiso is concerned, when old people and children began to be deported as of April 11, 1942, it was no longer possible to believe that the Jews were being sent to work camps.
DF: The government even signed a deal with the Germans to pay them for each deportee taken away...
IK: They paid 500 marks per person, about 5,000 crowns at the time. The Germans were then at the height of their power, and the Slovak government believed they would win the war. In my opinion, had they not believed this, such terrible things would never have happened in Slovakia.
DF: It's often argued that the transports were stopped on October 20, 1942. Would the Germans really have agreed to this, if it in fact happened?
IK: Transports were halted because all Slovak Jews who didn't have either an income or property had already been deported. When deportations began in 1942, the Germans were not putting any direct pressure on the Slovaks to do so. This pressure came in spring 1943 and spring 1944. The question arises as to why the Slovak government was unable to refuse 'pressure' in 1942, but managed to do so in 1944.
DF: Intolerance in Slovakia at the moment most affects the Roma. Is there any connection here with the past?
IK: There is always the danger that the past will be repeated. You only have to go to south Slovakia where prejudice against the Roma is high, and where it's easy to call them retards and idiots and then cry crocodile tears when a tragedy occurs. The politicians who most frequently attack the Roma are from those political parties which sympathise with the WWII regime.
DF: But wasn't it Róbert Fico, an MP who is known for his negative stance to Roma and Hungarians, who proposed a law making September 9 Holocaust Rememberance Day?
IK: This was simply abusing a problem which doesn't exist in Slovakia today. Today the problem is not with the Jews, but with the Roma.